Steenkamp reflected briefly on the nature of the history of the Cape. “I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s totally different from what we generally think,” he said. This book, which is part military history and part social history, aims to answer the questions that were raised for him in his capacity as the organiser of the bicentenary celebrations of the Battle of Blaauwberg.
Steenkamp recalled this watershed battle on 8 January 1806, which ushered in the Second British Occupation of the Cape: “Something very strange happened there. The best trained Batavian soldiers cut and ran, almost at the first shot.” He noted that the last ones on the battlefield were a small group of Dutch gunners, a small contingent of French, and three Cape regiments, the Hottentot Light Infantry, the Light Dragoons of Swellendam and the Javanese Artillery Corp.
“Why did these three units fight so hard against the British? What did they have in common? They all spoke what was not yet called Afrikaans!” He said that writing this book had been a journey of discovery, beyond the writing of his thesis. “I discovered many new things about the Cape, including details of my ancestors!”
Generous sponsorship for the book’s launch, received from Uwe Koetter, Cynergy Liqueur and Longridge Wines, was gratefully acknowledged by Jonathan Ball’s Ingeborg Pelser. Guests mingled afterwards in the remarkable Chavonnes Battery Museum, getting their books signed by the author, who had a personal note for each one.
In defence of the Cape
The Cape Contingent at Blaauwberg was a small one, only 563 men out of a total of just under 2 000 in the Batavian forces, and consisted of the following units:
- 181 men of the Hottentot Light Infantry, an efficient corps of professional coloured soldiers whose men had already acquired a fine reputation as occasionally turbulent but valiant fighters. They had been raised by the Dutch East India Company as the Korps Pandoeren in 1787 and, at the Battle of Muizenberg, during the first British invasion, had fought shoulder to shoulder with the Swellendam Light Dragoons. They were then recruited into the British service as the Cape Corps and in 1803, after the handover of the Cape to the Batavian Republic, into the Batavian service as the Hottentot Light Infantry. 224 men of the volunteer 'Burgher Cavalry', organised as light dragoons (mounted infantrymen,who rode to battle but fought on foot), mainly from the Swellendam district. The light dragoons were volunteers, drawn from the farming community. By 1806 they had acquired a fine track record, having fought very well at the Battle of Muizenberg during the first British invasion of 1795; when the DEIC regular troops had fled almost without firing a shot, the dragoons and the coloured soldiers of the Korps Pandoeren counter-attacked so ferociously that they drove a much larger British landing force back almost to the water's edge, and were only forced to retreat by artillery fire.
54 gunners of the 'Javanese Artillery Corps', assisted by l04 auxiliaries such as wagon-drivers. These Malay artillerymen were volunteer citizen-soldiers like the Swellendammers, members of a 'corps of free Javanese' from the 'Mardykers', the substantial community of freed slaves of Asian origin, which by that time was playing an increasingly important role in the social and economic life of the Cape. The corps was raised in 1804 to help in manning the Castle's guns, but served as foot artillery at Blaauwberg, firing traditional Indonesian light cannon known as 'lantakan', the only time these weapons are ever known to have been used in Africa. Less is known about their 104 auxiliaries, but it is known that they represented a cross-section of Cape Town's very cosmopolitan proletariat; some of them were almost certainly blacks who had come to the Cape from Mozambique and elsewhere.
Read about the battle in Assegais, Drums & Dragoons: A Military and Social History of the Cape by Willem Steenkamp.
Sourced from http://samilitaryhistory.org/vol134ws.html and http://jonathanball.bookslive.co.za/blog/2012/04/24/willem-steenkamps-assegais-drums-dragoons-launched-with-a-bang-at-the-chavonnes-battery-museum/